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Sergio Garcia should be punished for Tiger Woods joke

The feud between Sergio Garcia, left, and Tiger Woods has been festering.

gerald herbert/associated press

The feud between Sergio Garcia, left, and Tiger Woods has been festering.

It’s impossible to climb inside someone’s head and determine what true intent there was after an inappropriate comment is made. Sergio Garcia can hide behind cultural differences, the fun-natured tone of the question, and his attempt at a funny answer, and apologize to Tiger Woods every day for the next year. But what the Spaniard said Tuesday night was out of bounds, and the punishment should be harsher than the proverbial two-shot penalty.

It doesn’t sound as though one is coming. Garcia’s comments came at a dinner attended by, among others, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and George O’Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour. Both met with Garcia Wednesday — in response to the negative global reaction, it appears — and apparently determined that no disciplinary action was necessary.

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One of Garcia’s main sponsors, TaylorMade-Adidas, issued a canned statement Wednesday, admonishing Sergio for his poor choice of words, but lacking any spine.

For those unaware of what was said, Garcia was asked by the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands, serving as the dinner’s emcee, whether he would invite Tiger Woods over for dinner at the US Open, since the two have been engaged in a lengthy and public tug-of-words since the Players Championship. Garcia made the crowd laugh when he responded, “We will have him round every night.” Then, after a slight pause, Garcia added, “We will serve fried chicken.”

I’m not calling Garcia a racist. I don’t know him to be one. And there is a distinct difference between saying something racially insensitive and having racist feelings.

But words are hurtful, and crossing the line, as Garcia has done, should be dealt with swiftly and, more important, properly. For Finchem and O’Grady to hear the remark firsthand, yet do nothing, not even issue a statement acknowledging the sensitivity involved, is disappointing.

The finger isn’t pointed at the tour leaders, though. Garcia should know better, even if he’s someone who routinely says things that get him in trouble. He claims not to be aware of Fuzzy Zoeller making similar comments at the 1997 Masters, which Woods won by a record 12 shots.

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Zoeller was vilified, losing lucrative sponsorships almost immediately and diminishing a legacy he worked hard to build, one that includes two major championships. Even now, 16 years later, Zoeller is probably known as much for a thoughtless five-second comment as he is for winning the 1979 Masters or 1984 US Open. Sad, but true.

Will the same happen to Garcia? His passion, other than golf, is soccer, so much so that he owns a professional team in his native Spain. That sport, especially in Europe, has seen more than its recent share of racially insensitive incidents, on the field and from the stands.

Garcia might — might — get the benefit of the doubt if the comment weren’t relating to Woods, and didn’t come so soon after their public dust-up. OK, we get it, they don’t like each other, and they don’t exchange Christmas cards. Fine. The longer the spat lingers, the worse they look and sound, and I would have said that even before Garcia’s Tuesday comment.

Now, there’s no telling what direction this might go. If we were dealing with players who aren’t so thin-skinned and sensitive, I’d like the chances for an amicable resolution. But that’s not who we’re dealing with. “High road” hasn’t been in their vocabulary the past two weeks.

If the US Golf Association has any guts, it will pair Woods and Garcia in the first two rounds next month at Merion. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Before Tuesday, Garcia was saying this about Woods: “He called me a whiner. He’s probably right. But that’s also probably the first thing he’s told you guys that’s true in 15 years. I know what he’s like. You guys are finding out.”

More: “This is not just one thing; this has been going on for a long time. It’s happened in other tournaments. The problem is I’m one of the guys that just has to say something. Tiger can and will beat me a lot of times in tournaments but he’s not going to step on top of me. I’m not afraid of him.”

Still more: “I don’t need him as a friend. I don’t need him in my life to be happy, and that’s fine. It’s as simple as that.”

On Wednesday, Garcia had this to say: “I’m terribly sorry about what happened. I was caught off-guard by what seemed to be a funny question and tried to give a funny answer that came off totally wrong. I want to make sure that everybody knows that I’m very, very sorry. I can’t apologize enough times.”

Woods, who had no public reaction Tuesday, responded with a Twitter message Wednesday morning.

“The comment that was made wasn’t silly,” he wrote. “It was wrong, hurtful, and clearly inappropriate. I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.”

Instead, we’re talking about insensitive comments that have, rightly, offended people.

Maybe something good can come of this. Perhaps Garcia can finally see that, as much as we appreciate his honesty because it makes for good copy, he’d be better served keeping some thoughts to himself.

It’d be a shame if someone so talented fails to meet expectations, lofty as they are, because he can’t get out of his own way.

Or maybe it will get uglier, considering the feelings Woods and Garcia have for each other.

If that’s the case, I’ll skip the vitriolic verbiage and make a simple on-course request: Can we just fast-forward to the 2014 Ryder Cup and get these guys paired against each other in Sunday singles?

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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